Blowing the Candles
The Xbox 360 has turned five - and this is one console that certainly grew up quickly
Has it really been five years? A rudimentary check of the calendar reveals that yes, indeed, the Xbox 360 is blowing out five candles on its cake this week (a task my non-slimline model will have little difficulty with once the fans get going), but it's hard to accept the fact that Microsoft's concave champion has been around for half a decade at this point.
Not, of course, that my actual Xbox 360 has lasted half a decade. Sadly, if the console's hardware is remembered for any one thing in future, it'll almost certainly be the atrocious failure rate of early versions. A large proportion of early adopters no longer have their original consoles in working order, and a hugely expensive repair programme and the eventual launch of redesigned hardware was required to salvage Microsoft's bruised reputation as a hardware vendor.
Yet even if the Red Ring of Death has now entered into gamer vernacular - and certainly won't be remembered quite as fondly as the quirks of earlier consoles, such as turning your PlayStation on its side or blowing on the cartridge pins of your SNES - it's hardly stopped the relentless march which has installed Microsoft comfortably ahead of Sony in terms of installed base.
Bluntly, that's not a position many commentators expected the company to find itself in. From the outset, it was widely agreed that the Xbox 360 was going to be a much more serious prospect than the original Xbox had been - that Microsoft's second console launch would be vastly different to its first, reflecting both the tough lessons learned from the Xbox and the strong relationships with third-party developers and publishers built in the previous half-decade.
Either expressly or tacitly, however, most people seemed to agree that the race was still Sony's to lose - and even if Microsoft had a year-long head start, and some of the noises coming out of Sony Computer Entertainment (or at least, the increasingly arrogant pronouncements of (now-former) PlayStation boss Ken Kutaragi) weren't entirely encouraging, it seemed inconceivable that Sony would slip up so badly as to give Microsoft a long-term lead.
Yet here we are, five years down the road, and the PlayStation 3 is still playing catch-up to the Xbox 360. Sometimes it erodes the lead, sometimes the gap widens, and as the installed bases both rise, the difference between them becomes less statistically significant - but from a psychological point of view, Microsoft can puff its chest out and proudly proclaim that it only took it one trial run before it produced a console that could bypass Sony's best effort.
Of course, the thing that nobody quite foresaw five years ago wasn't so much that the Xbox 360 would do well - even turning in a Sony-beating performance - but rather, the possibility that Nintendo might knock both of them into a cocked hat. That's precisely what happened, of course. Microsoft and Sony, and their respective fan-bases, love to talk about how the Wii is in decline right now, but all the flapping jaws in the world can't cover for the fact that Nintendo is still a dominant force in videogame hardware, with a commanding lead in installed base and regular top placing in monthly sales charts in key territories.
That wasn't part of the gameplan. It probably hurt Sony more than it hurt Microsoft, of course, because the PlayStation was a brand with a lot of cachet among casual gamers, whereas the Xbox was always going to make its mark with the core gaming audience first. The one-two punch in the early years for PS3 was a combination of Nintendo's strength and a crucial weakness in Sony's position, with the firm trying to prop up the (admittedly still very healthy) PS2 business and thus left with limited options for fending off a dual-pronged assault from Microsoft's high-tech, core gamer friendly system and Nintendo's low-tech, family friendly, disruptive approach.
This week, though, we can forget for a moment about the external market forces which have led us to this strange position in the games business, and focus on Microsoft's achievement. Regardless of what Nintendo did right, or where Sony went wrong, Microsoft has done extraordinary things in the games business in the past five years. It has, in fact, done something which some considered impossible not so long ago - it has created a brand with genuine credibility and cachet, a brand which has achieved escape velocity from the stuffy, formal and frankly not terribly well liked Microsoft family of brands (chief among them being the "Microsoft" brand itself).
Xbox is undeniably a cool brand, and it's become so not just because the marketing is good, or because the firm paid the right celebrities to name-drop it when asked what they do with their spare time. Rather, it's a cool brand because it's associated with a games console which a vast number of people use, and enjoy, and love. It's a console which has attracted some of the best games of the past half-decade - arguably, some of the best games in the history of the medium - and one whose hardware design, from a technical standpoint, has turned out to be remarkably forward-looking and flexible, so that even today we're still seeing impressive new things in the games we play.
The firm's faith in online services has been rewarded, too. We've known for a long time that Xbox Live was huge, and have always suspected that it would change the business of gaming in radical ways. Finally this week we saw some hard figures, showing that about half of the 25 million users of the service are paying for Xbox Live Gold - meaning over 12 million paying users, a significant business, a pretty solid ecosystem for third parties to build upon, and of course, a number that will only grow in future.
The challenges Microsoft faces with the coming five years should not be understated. It is trying something brave and new with Kinect, both in terms of technology and in terms of its belief that this can extend the lifespan of the console without having to launch an entirely new platform. It still needs to convince families and more casual gamers that it's got something to offer which beats Nintendo at its own game. Perhaps most of all, it cannot rely on Sony continuing to slumber - the former heavyweight champion is under new management and gives every impression of having learned from the lessons of the past, even if putting those lessons into practice may take some time.
But Microsoft faces those challenges not as an underdog, as it did five years ago, but as one of the biggest shows in town. The Xbox 360 has transformed the landscape of the games industry, and in more subtle ways, it has transformed gaming itself. It hasn't delivered the world's living rooms to Microsoft on a silver platter, as the firm might once have hoped (indeed, as it may still hope) - but after five mostly fantastic years, the Xbox 360 has cemented its place among the medium's great gaming platforms.